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Tuesday, July 7th 2009

8:11 AM

(On-the-)Road Scholar; Or, The Future of Teaching Goes Medieval?

Exhibit A is a snappy-looking mini-projector that works with iPods etc. I have not used and so am not endorsing it, but it illustrates the point I will present below:


My point is, simply, that modern technology is making most, if not all, of the institutional infrastructure formerly necessary to conduct a typical college course obsolete. The new generation of presentation technology, designed mainly for corporate/marketing-type uses, is also ideally suited to empower the individual lecturer to give any class, anywhere, with no need of recourse to deans, colleagues, computer (non)service departments, AV offices, copier (non)services, libraries, or even an official classroom on campus.

With your AV/slideshows/audio/whatever portable on a laptop or smartphone, even local wireless access is optional as a desideratum for presenting a class. At least, if you had to ensure you had it, a phone network (e.g. iPhone) could get it anywhere you needed it.

The only other tools one needs are a courseware web page, and library resources. Distance education has enabled the latter with collegiate library databases, such as the excellent OhioLink one; but even people not enrolled in academic programs can subscribe to Questia (I have not used it, but it appears to be at least a functional substitute for access to scholarly journals and ebooks online). And if we throw in Google Scholar, well, as we used to say in eastern Penna: fuggedaboutit.

As to the courseware page, a freelance lecturer can manage that too; for less than $200/yr, such pages can be done with open-source Moodle or a similar product, and hosted on one's personal account on servers which cater to our trade. Never mind Youtube, iTunes U, etc.

Adjunct faculty and freeway fliers have long (and justly) bemoaned the lack of proper infrastructure and staff support for teaching their courses (complaints which most tenured full-time faculty could make also). The old model of a medieval scholar like Abelard touring from town to town and presenting lectures in churches or other community space for anyone who would pay seemed untranslatable to the modern world.  But translated, it now has been.

Here's a question: if I and my students (being anyone in the world who feels like signing up for my course, from any net-enabled location) can do presentations, lectures, discussions, writing assignments, etc.--and have access to the world's libraries while doing it--then what exactly do the students need to pay colleges and universities for? Accreditation and the awarding of degrees appears to be the only bonus provided by institutional affiliation in this edutopia of the already-here-future. But if accreditation is based on faculty qualifications--and in spite of recent fads in accreditation, that will remain the key criterion--why can't we work on something like the model of accredited music teachers, who can give private courses which count towards whatever state/regional accreditation is necessary for a given program--even teacher preparation? The only other necessity is collecting fees from the students--but Abelard didn't need a registrar for that.

The possibility here is both for freelancers, and for united groups of faculty (think United Artists), to simply take the majority of courses taught in higher education back from the institutions which are no longer needed to host or support them. (They mostly weren't doing a great job of it anyway.)

Granted, this model is not ideal for the 18-22-year-old set, who need campus community and supervision to deal with the academic project and the life-stages that accompany it in those years. So, that limits us to students of non-traditional age.

But, since 5 out of 6 Americans enrolled in a college course is now a non-trad---I think we may be in business.

I will be interested to hear what you think; please comment here if you would. I am experimentally extending my own web presence in the ways outlined above, but we should not let the technical details distract us from what I see as the meta-issue here. Higher education is increasingly outsourcing the faculty, and the primary teaching mission, and we (the profession) have bewailed and bemoaned this for decades. But what if we were to view this as an advantage, even a gift--and just take our ball and run away with it?

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Monday, November 10th 2008

3:42 PM

Dollars and Sententiae

In the winter (February 2008) newsletter of the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors, I wrote of the prospect of "a full-on economic depression, a possibility that is starting to loom on the US horizon (at least according to George Soros and Robert Reich)." What can I say--I used to work at a mutual fund--

and sometimes I read the tea-leaves aright. Higher education, including one's own institution, has as usual been taken by surprise. And, again as usual, it is unlikely the administrative budget (70%, at my place) will take the whole, or even an appropriately proportional, hit.

Fellow academics who may be a tad uncertain of where to turn for good coverage of the present situation might want to bookmark "Calculated Risk."

Those who might like an introductory, painless, and reassuring tutorial on how to get rich slowly while investing on a modest income may want to make the acquaintance of The Wealthy Barber (a.k.a. David Chilton), a blast from the '90s financial past whose book and PBS videos remain entertaining and wise classics. A short video clip of a recent appearance is here; a review of the book that seems to sum it up well is here. The videos are still buyable off Amazon.com, at least in VHS and audio- as well as paper books.

Don't be fooled by Chilton's folksy humor; he got the highest score ever on the Canadian Securities Course exam (equivalent to the US NASDAQ Series 7). His videos epitomize the concept of wearing your learning lightly; we should all give lectures as good.
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Friday, July 25th 2008

9:23 AM

De Mortuis

Randy Pausch has passed  on. "Stop all the clocks; cut off the telephone . . ."

His book is here.
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Monday, May 19th 2008

1:41 PM

Snatch the pebble from my hand, if you can . . .

Last year, we had a "discussion" about whether it was kosher to search candidate's Web-personae for the purpose of finding something "bad," which was of course never defined. Some of us said this is incorrect and unprofessional, and should not be done.

As is all too usual, some of us were right. At least as far as MLA is concerned--(quoting from my Facebook page here):

The Modern Language Association (MLA) Committee on Academic Freedom, Professional Rights, and Responsibilities has just responded to a query I sent regarding college policies toward Googling or Facebooking prospective faculty candidates as a screening practice.

"You will be happy to know that in answer to your concern regarding background checks through Googling Facebook and other Web sites, the committee at its spring meeting decided to add a new category to its 'Dos and Don'ts for Interviewers.' This new entry will suggest that candidates should only be judged on professional, scholarly, and intellectual criteria."

(--Of course, their statement also says that you probably shouldn't post really dumb stuff on public websites either. But the principle is now established even so.)

You may all applaud at your convenience. And if you want that pebble--get used to the technical terms "pwn3d" and "n00b." 
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Thursday, April 17th 2008

2:43 PM

Next stop, Kalamazoo--

I couldn't resist:

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Monday, February 25th 2008

4:00 PM

Randy Pausch's blog

He is still hanging in there, and even finished a book (as well as scoring a speaking part in the next Star Trek movie)--
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Friday, February 15th 2008

10:41 AM

Deduct Your Sabbatical

Firstly, thanks to the candidates we met at MLA. The upside of the job market, at least if you are an interviewer, is the consistent high quality of the people you see for most of the specialties we would be hiring in modern languages, and this search is no exception. While the MLA experience tends to be non-optimal as groused about below by myself and others, that part of it does give you confidence and satisfaction that at least, our profession is doing something right.

Today's theme, though, is unsolicited advice (and by the way, I am full of it, and happy to share at any time). A sabbatical, assuming you are on reduced pay and traveling, is likely to be a financial disaster, but the upside is that nearly all associated costs are deductible. The reason is that one was granted the non-teaching partly-paid leave for the purpose of working on the research project that one applied for leave to do; accordingly, you are being paid to do that, and uncompensated costs incurred along the way are deductible work expenses, if properly documented. That means travel, food, laundry, housing--pretty much everything that is incurred in the course of getting to and living in the locations where you work on it. And, the living costs can be per diem'd rather than itemized, so long as the receipts to back that up are on hand.

I bring this up simply because not many faculty seem to understand this, and their tax people can't be blamed (much), since this is a unique wrinkle that doesn't come up in the world outside academe, except for freelancers and self-employed perhaps (and even in our world--in my case--has only now come up for the first time in a decade-plus of professoring, since sabbaticals don't happen every day).

While you can, and should, take my word for it on this and indeed all things, you don't have to. Though there is a baffling shortage of publication about sabbaticals--one topic that has huge pan-disciplinary professional self-interest--this angle is discussed in Ralston, Jayne and Tony, The Sabbatical Book (Buffalo: Roylott Press, 1987), and also to some extent in tax guides tailored for educators. And on a more up-to-date note, my own reliable tax person has validated this philosophy also.

Since I used to work in the financial industry, I of course must pop off the usual disclaimer that I am not a licensed financial or tax advisor, and you should check with someone with professional credentials before taking anyone else's word for anything. (For a more entertaining financial disclaimer covering any and all liabilities, see the parody of a high-tech business plan presented in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon).

A side note: if traveling extensively, don't forget the savings to be had by turning off electricity hogs like your refrigerator, and by cancelling subscriptions such as cable TV and internet. It's a minor inconvenience when you visit home during the period, but the savings add up--and you may end up wondering if you need to pay for HBO when DVDs are free at the local (and college) library anyway.

That's enough useful advice for one day. Next time, we will aim for more docere et delectare (though we are not sure academics enjoy anything much more than saving money!).
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Wednesday, October 10th 2007

3:28 PM

See You in Chicago

Looks like I'm going to MLA after all, having played hooky since 2000. Do we all still wear black pajamas? . . . oops, flashback. Odd, considering I was not quite 15 when the war ended--but there it is.

If you are a 20th-century Americanist on the market, "Be seeing you!", as "The Prisoner" used to say--

"Rover" (the Prisoner's enigmatic white-balloon sentinel, above) will be stashed out of sight in the hotel suite bathroom. Don't make us use it.

If you have no idea what that is all about, herewith the opening credits to this great show, from Youtube. It has a certain level of applicability to MLA, IMHO.

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Wednesday, October 3rd 2007

2:19 PM


The Virtual Keyboard:

It even makes (customizable) typing sounds as you pound on an empty surface . . . see Youtube clip for more.
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Wednesday, October 3rd 2007

2:12 PM

The Medievalist's (or Classicist's) Bedside Companion

This is possibly the coolest piece of furniture I have ever seen:
(It would probably be most effective if, when confronting your would-be assailant with this, you also screamed "This Is SPARTA!!!!!")
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